CAR-Russia: Who is Vitali Perfilev, Wagner’s boss in Bangui?

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Thursday, 7 April 2022 08:50

A member of Touadéra's close protection team, from the Russian company Sewa Security, in Berengo, CAR, on 14 August 2018. © FLORENT VERGNES/AFP.

Vitali Perfilev had long remained in the shadows. In Bangui, some people remember him from the middle of 2019. He was then just another mercenary, one of the Wagner group's leaders in the Central African Republic (CAR), dividing his time between Bangui and Berengo, the former imperial residence where the Russians set up their command and training base.

But Perfilev was working under a more prominent man named Valeri Zakharov, who at the time was advising President Faustin-Archange Touadéra on security matters.

Since then, Perfilev has risen to prominence. While Zakharov has gradually distanced himself from Bangui, Perfilev has risen in rank, becoming the right-hand man for the CAR of Dmitri Utkin, Wagner’s operational chief. In December 2020, when the country’s armed groups went on the offensive, he was the main military commander charged with defending Bangui and then of the Russian-Central African counter-attack aimed at opening up the capital. According to our information, Perfilev is now an official advisor to Touadéra, just like Zakharov before him.

Former member of the French Foreign Legion

Born in Russia, Perfilev spent part of his career in the French Foreign Legion, a fact that has embarrassed Paris – Moscow’s rival – to no end. He then returned to St. Petersburg, before joining Wagner (like many former soldiers from this city, which is the stronghold of the mercenary group’s financier, Evgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch and close friend of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin).

According to someone close to him in Bangui, the former legionnaire fought for Wagner in Syria, among other countries, before landing in the CAR. As early as 2015, about two years before starting its deployment in the CAR, the mercenary group defended oil sites in Syria and fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s troops. A secret agreement allowed its sister companies to obtain 25% of the profits from oil wells taken over from the Islamic State rebel group.

In the CAR, Perfilev does not go unnoticed. This “tall, well-built blond man”, according to one of his acquaintances, often drives around alone in an armoured V8 pick-up truck, the model of which is easily recognisable. In his 50s, the Russian likes to frequent the terrace next to the Ledger Hotel’s swimming pool and enjoys the atmosphere (and the bottles of wine) of the Kiss brasserie, the Cuisine A restaurant and the M, another establishment popular with Bangui’s high society. Dressed in civilian clothes, he regularly invites his Central African friends there.

Touadéra’s man and his circle

Among his privileged contacts are some of the most influential figures within Touadéra’s entourage. Jean-Claude Rameaux Bireau, the defence minister and head of state’s nephew, is among them, as well as former minister Henri Wanzet-Linguissara, now head of intelligence. Ministers Pascal Bida Koyagbélé (a regular at M) and Hassan Bouba are also important contacts, as is the national assembly’s first vice-president and spokesperson for the ruling Mouvement Cœurs Unis (MCU), Evariste Ngamana.

Above all, Perfilev maintains direct contact with the President himself. According to our sources, the former Foreign Legion officer often (and at all hours) talks on the phone with Touadéra, who regularly asks him about the progress of this or that field operation. The Russian also regularly visits the presidential palace, where he often manages to get one-on-one meetings with the head of state without worrying about protocol.

Perfilev has an office not far from the presidency for this very purpose, the same one that was made available to Zakharov. This discreet workspace is located a stone’s throw from the city’s land registry and housing ministry, whose car park it shares. According to a recent visitor, Perfilev has an office and a living room that is just under 20 square metres that is painted yellow and has black leather sofas.

Poisoning and paralysis

Described as a “bon vivant”, Wagner’s boss in Bangui is said to suffer regularly from health problems. Recently, a rumour began spreading that he his leg was paralysed and he had to be medically evacuated. The pro-Russian Central African press reported that this was linked to an alleged poisoning attempt by the French intelligence services. When alerted to what they consider to be an disinformation “operation”, those concerned smiled but did not bother to deny it.

According to our sources, the subject of the real-false poisoning was discussed between the Russian and French embassies in the CAR. Russian diplomacy has disassociated itself from the accusations.

A new theory is circulating in Bangui about the origin of the former legionnaire’s troubles, this time attributing it to a settlement of accounts between pro- and anti-Wagner Russians. The group’s actions have been the subject of discreet criticism in recent months within the Russian diplomatic machinery, notably delaying the arrival of the new ambassador, Alexandre Bikantov.

Is this because of Wagner’s high-profile involvement in Mali and then Ukraine? In recent weeks, adjustments of men and equipment have been made from the CAR, from where helicopters and fighters have been reassigned, although it is not clear whether they were destined for Mali or the Kyiv region.

In Bangui, some political and diplomatic figures critical of Perfilev and his men are discreetly pleading to change the nature of the government’s relationship with Russia.

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